At Cafe Oto, the Necks’ usual London home, we listeners are close enough to see the details: exactly which rattling device Tony Buck is wielding his right hand, or what use Chris Abrahams is making of the piano’s sustain pedal. The Oto programmers’ decision to invite them to play instead last night at EartH (Evolutionary Arts Hackney), the converted Savoy cinema barely a quarter of a mile up the road in Dalston, gave a different perspective on the Australian trio’s collective improvisations.
In front of an audience several times larger than Cafe Oto admits, they stuck to the familiar format of two sets of about 45 minutes each, with nothing premeditated. The first was opened with fluid rippling figures from Abrahams, soon joined by Buck’s percussion and Lloyd Swanton’s bass, gradually building a layered intensity, the surface textures and internal dynamics changing like the sky on a day of changeable weather as they worked their way towards a graceful conclusion, the fruit of 32 years of working together.
The second set, opened by Buck, was different in two significant respects. First, their lighting operator took a more prominent role, switching constantly between a limited array of floodlights. I found it distracting — the musicians weren’t playing to the lights — and spent much of the set with my eyes closed. And the music had also moments of much greater violence, clearly exerting a cathartic effect on the audience, who greeted its more abrupt conclusion with a sustained collective shout.
If the acoustics of EartH meant that the sounds of the individual instruments weren’t as clearly defined as they are in a more intimate setting, the size of the place nevertheless added its own dimension to the overall effect. The piano, bass and percussion often blended into each other, sometimes creating a thrilling roar of overtones. The amphitheatre layout and the semi-refurbished interior — original ceiling mouldings, a tiered wooden floor to sit on — made for a sympathetic environment, although you feel that even were the Necks to play Wembley Stadium, they’d manage to transform its ambiance into that of a small club while finding ways to exploit the possibilities of the new environment. But, on balance, that might be a step you’d rather they didn’t take.